But I slowly came to realise that, during times of immense upheaval, it’s human nature to cling to the things that are familiar. To retreat to the spaces that remind us of simpler times, times where we could shake a person’s hand without worrying it might kill one of us. Remember those days?
Love it or hate it, advertising is one of those familiar things, an ever-present in a volatile world, something that people can still wrap their arms around and understand. At a time when there’s no sport on the telly, it perhaps should be no surprise that a media-weary population want advertisers to keep calm and carry on.
As someone who works in advertising, it’s been interesting to see how the Covid crisis has forced a change in businesses’ communication instincts during these unprecedented times TM, shaking off their irritating and interruptive sides and reimagining themselves as masters of empathy. “We’re all in this together – look, we’ve done an ad to prove it!”
Putting accusations of business opportunism to one side, I think it’s true to say that one of the unintended consequences of this pandemic has been a wave of positive feeling towards one another, a rush of empathy.
From the ritualistic Thursday #ClapForOurCarers, to the unprecedented (that word again) NHS volunteer response and the outpouring of admiration / inpouring of cash for Captain Tom; we’re all getting behind one another in ways that this particular human living in post-Brexit Britain never thought possible.
What’s interesting is that this shift is being mirrored in our workplaces too (for workspaces, read: lounge, bed, deckchair…). In my own company, we’re seeing new behaviours emerge that are making us a better, stronger and more empathetic business altogether.
We talk more. We listen more. Our carbon footprint is less. We’re on time for meetings (believe me when I say that’s a win). We’re valuing colleagues’ time. We’re communicating better from the top-down. And the bottom-up.
We’re using video calls effectively. We’re being our best, supportive selves. We’re being creative and productive in the way we spend our days. We’re working in bursts, often juggling kids (both metaphorically and literally).
From a leadership perspective, we’re being forced to focus on what’s important – the health and welfare of our people, the delicately shifting needs of our clients, the nurturing of our company culture while being physically apart.
I’ve been acutely conscious of the need to be ultra-transparent with people, to appreciate every single person’s individual lockdown experience, and to allow for every employee’s unique situation and needs.
While there have been many column inches dedicated to how much we’ll adopt WFH practices once the pandemic fades, there’s been less discussion on the impact the crisis is having on leadership style.
And yet I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in finding that our new work lives are fostering a more positive and empathetic approach; something I believe will continue long after lockdown.
In Ben Horowitz’s excellent book ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’, he talks about the difference between wartime and peacetime CEOs. The former, he argues, is a grab-em-by-the-scuff-of-the-neck type, a leader who believes in the FIFO (Fit In or Fuck Off) approach favoured by Man City chief, Pep Guardiola.
But this period – a period in which our leaders have themselves been using unforgivable language about the world being at war – has shown that this ‘wartime CEO’ mentality just isn’t right. People need reassurance, to be listened to.
They need simple messages that show the way forward. This softer approach both honourable and incredibly effective.
From Norway’s Erna Solberg to New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, it can’t be mere coincidence that the countries who’ve tamed the virus’s rampage most effectively are those led by strong and decisive yet empathetic leaders.
Although it’s an easy point to score, the opposite approach across the pond by the tangerine man-child is yielding very different results. Covid-19 is showing us in real-time how powerful soft political leadership can be as a blueprint for the future.
There’s no reason why the same can’t be true for the way we run our businesses. Especially when it’s proven that ‘for good’ practices can drive ‘good’ business: BrewDog, for example, has rightly been lauded for its work during lockdown, first with hand sanitiser production and more recently with an NHS-inspired rebrand.
Both show the potential of empathetic leadership to drive businesses forward in ways that benefit society as a whole.
The pandemic has already shown us that society and business are capable of adapting to immense change at immense speed. As we move through the next few months – perhaps even years – of uncertainty, let’s make sure that post-Covid business isn’t just about embracing Zoom meetings, but also about being kinder.
Chris Jefford is founder and CEO @ advertising, media and music agency Truant London.